Sunday, February 28, 2010

Portland: fresh campaign finance disclosures

The city of Portland has posted the pre-election campaign finance disclosures for November's city council and school board candidates. No sign of the post-election ones however.

I've added the link to my Portland, Maine Ad Hoc Campaign Finance Disclosure Homepage, created a year ago because the city can't manage to post most of them on their own and destroyed all disclosures in their possession prior to 2005. (My reporting led to the law being changed to prevent this in future.)

Once again, a general plea: if you have any Portland, Maine disclosures from prior to 2005 and would like to contribute them to the database, please contact me.

Meanwhile, the fallout from the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on corporations and campaign finance continues. Everyone, regardless of their politics, should be concerned about a system where political money can no longer be traced.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Maine State Pier: who's accountable?

My Talk of Maine column in the new issue of Down East is on -- wait for it -- the Maine State Pier (and the not-unrelated effort to rewrite the constitution of Maine's largest city.)

If you haven't been following this saga, you're in for a treat: people in high places using money and influence in an effort to effectively privatize a major public asset under false pretenses and for what would have worked out to little money.

If you've had season tickets to this one, the new development is that the city's official position is that, internally at least, everyone has always known that the pier never needed a major fix. As you'll see in the piece, this is hard to square with former councilor Jim Cloutier's talking points back in 2007. But, once again, nobody is accountable, which leads to the article's other question: will the Charter Commission's efforts to revamp city government ensure that the buck stops somewhere?

For now, the buck is apparently not stopping with current councilors Nick Mavodones and Jill Duson. The longtime supporters of the pier project once again did not respond to interview requests. I've interviewed foreign heads of state, sitting U.S. governors, several Bosnian war criminals, three cardinals, two Orthodox metropolitans, the Aga Khan, and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, but I've never once gotten the current and immediate past mayor of my hometown to talk about waterfront issues. Curious.

For more background on the Portland waterfront, start here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Maine: Updates on NOM, Ocean Gateway

For regular readers, a couple of updates on stories I've covered here.

Will Ocean Gateway be Saved? Portland's $20-million-cruise-ship-terminal-without-a-cruise-ship-berth will not be rescued by federal stimulus money. The Forecaster asked the right questions in the story filed yesterday. The future of the facility, which is costing city taxpayers around $400,000 a year, remains uncertain, although MaineBiz reports that there may be another chance to score federal funds. (Their main story on Ocean Gateway is a bit weak, failing to include operating costs in their paragraph on how much the facility is losing.)

Hiding the Money Made Harder: The group that gave two-thirds of the money used to defeat Maine's same sex marriage law has been refusing to say where it came from, in defiance of state law. (They've even sued the state to avoid doing so.) But last week, the National Organization for Marriage lost another legal motion, this one to stop the state ethics commission from obtaining the documents it needs to evaluate the violations. The Bangor Daily News had the story yesterday. [Update, 8/11/2011: A federal appeals court has upheld a U.S. District Court decision against NOM's position, moving the organization one step closer to disclosure.]

F. Lee Bailey's Sour Grapes: The group that wanted public money to help it operate an aircraft repair shop at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station has pulled out, after a series of articles in the Forecaster called attention to its failure to keep up its end of a similar deal at the Sanford Airport. Oxford Aviation's front man, disbarred defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, tried to blame the town of Brunswick for being hostile to business. Some analysis from the reporter who broke the story here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ruining the Olympics

I'd like to add my voice to those upset with NBC's infuriating coverage of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. While much of the rest of the world gets to actually watch the competitions as sports, we're subjected to a distilled, usually time-delayed, and fluff-filled "entertainment product" that amounts to little more than highlights. Even viewers in Seattle, right next door to Vancouver, have confronted tape delays of nearly every major event.

I was in Canada for much of the last summer Olympics, and was able to enjoy real coverage on CBC. Sadly, this time around I'm home, and in this country, even those whose cable package includes CBC have no way to access coverage this time around, since the private CTV network won the Canadian rights.

So what's NBC saying? Nothing so far.

I'm boycotting the games in protest, however futile. If I wasn't already boycotting Twitter, I might even send a protest message to their management. Instead I'm just going to hope that by 2012 the Internet will allow us to see other countries' superior coverage more easily. Or that some other, more responsible network wins the right to broadcast the games.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Portland: will Ocean Gateway be saved?

If you've been following Portland, Maine's eastern waterfront saga, there's a new development.

Currently, the people of Portland are shelling out some $400,000 a year to pay for the largely-vacant Ocean Gateway Terminal, a $20 million cruise ship and ferry terminal built under questionable economic assumptions. The cruise ship portion of the facility is useless, because it needs another $8 million invested to dredge a berthing area so cruise ships can actually tie up there. With The Cat gone, the terminal has no real function.

But the state made a Hail Mary pass to try to rescue this white elephant: an application for a federal stimulus grant to complete the megaberth as part of a $32 million Maine ports package. If approved, Ocean Gateway might at least be able to earn some income from large cruise ships, while sparing the Maine State Pier from the wear and tear of mooring the 100,000 ton vessels.

Yesterday the grant winners were announced, and Maine ports won, sort of.

The federal government approved Maine's application, but is giving the state only $14 million, less than half of what was requested. Now the ball is in Maine's court: will we spend more than half that grant money to rescue our stranded terminal investment, or will it go to other priorities? Who will decide, and what criteria will they use? One hopes the daily newspapers will ask these questions, but if they don't, stay tuned here.... [Update 2/23/10: No answers from the dailies, as per usual, but The Forecaster learned the mega-berth will not be saved.]

(Hat tip to Christian at Rights of Way, who has been following stimulus grants closely.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Things to watch and read

Some recommended reading and viewing this week:

My friends Jason Maloney and Kira Kay -- aka The Bureau for International Reporting -- were in Haiti when the earthquake struck, and one of the pieces they were working on aired recently on PBS' NOW and can now be seen online. It's a powerful piece on giving birth in a very poor place, and how little attention maternal health gets on the international "development agenda." Needless to say, one fears for how things will play out in Haiti post-quake.

Harper's has been a little too predictable for my taste of late, but the current issue has a chilling investigative piece exposing an apparent cover-up of the slaying of prisoners at the U.S. detention facility on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A disturbing expose on how the Pentagon and Central Intelligence cover their tracks....poorly.

Here in Maine, the Lewiston Sun Journal published a tough, thoroughly researched piece revealing how our hospitals have been lavishly compensating their CEOs, even as they cry poor. Oh, and Lewiston-based Central Maine Health Care turns out to have an offshore subsidiary in the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes and transparency. This is the sort of no-b.s. watchdog journalism our daily newspapers should be doing week in and week out, but sadly don't. Kudos to reporter Lindsay Tice and her editors.

In a similar vein -- although it took much less digging -- the Bangor Daily News yesterday published this no-nonsense article on how Fraser paper paid its executives massive bonuses as the company went down the tubes. Aren't these things supposed to be tied to the company's performance? Odd how it looks more like looting.

If Richard Connor over at the Portland Press Herald is wondering how to make his papers relevant again, perhaps he should read these pieces.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Austria's banking worries

I was in Austria recently in connection with a series of stories on how the Great Recession is playing out in East-Central Europe. There many countries had only just emerged from their post-Communist recession when they got whacked hard by an uber-Capitalist one.

One of the casualties has been Austria, whose banks loaned heavily to the region during the go-go years, so much in fact that many experts say the country is vulnerable to a Greek-style meltdown. Read my piece on this topic in the Christian Science Monitor to find out more.

One thing to be aware of: reporters generally don't write the headlines and subheads that go with their story, and the ones the Monitor wrote for this piece don't accurately reflect the article. A better headline would have been "Austria fears wave of bad banks loans tied to Eastern Europe" and the subhead should have focused on the Hypo bank failure (in December) rather than the Austrian state's massive bank rescue (more than a year ago.)

Memo to journalists: always ask to see headlines and captions beforehand.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Portland's Most Influential

An update from the Department of Vulgar Self-Promotion:

Thanks to the editors of the Portland Phoenix, our alternative news weekly hereabouts, who've included me among this year's Portland's Most Influential issue. I'm in the Letters category, along with the lead singer of (the very loud death punk band) Covered in Bees, which is the coolest company I've been in since the last time the Stone Pinhead Ensemble did a show. But there are 198 other "movers and shakers" in everything from politics and business to food, drink, and the arts, so if you live in southern Maine, have a look.

If you'd like to take me down a notch, consider voting for one of my opponents in their Portland's Best Author reader's poll, going on now.

And now back to your regularly scheduled program....

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Press-Herald: what city are you in?

I don't intend this blog to become bogged down in criticizing the Portland Press Herald, the daily that was once upon a time the state's newspaper of record, but this morning I just can't help myself.

I just visited their website, where the lead headline and photograph are "New Storm Deepens Misery." Did I miss something in the weather report? Are we to get snow dumped on us from the snowstorm that hammered the poor, snow-averse people of the Chesapeake country?

No, to my amazement the story turned out to be an Associated Press piece on the snowstorm in D.C.!

It never occurred to me that a Maine daily would run a story about a snowstorm ten hours' drive to the south of here as if it was (a) something so vital to Mainers that it would trump all other news in importance and emphasis and (b) an event we've not already been told about from a thousand other sources and, if we really cared, couldn't read about over at And even if they had the poor judgment to give this story top billing, shouldn't they mention where they're talking about in their headline, seeing as their distribution area doesn't include Washington?

The paper's top editors, many of whom have recently arrived from away, are making a lot of strange decisions. They run AP copy from out of state on major stories like the Fairpoint bankruptcy filings or they lead their Sunday paper with an embarrassing puff piece on the Libra Foundation and meanwhile send reporters on expensive sojourns of questionable merit to (media-soaked) Haiti and to western Europe (to shadow a Gubernatorial junket.) Have they lost any sense of place, mission, and priorities? Today they might just as well have led with "Political scandal rocks capital" (the capital of Nova Scotia, that is) or "Causeway closed till Noon!"(in Bermuda.)

By way of comparison, the Bangor Daily News' top story this morning was "Officials tell state: Route 15 needs to be rebuilt." That's Route 15 in Maine, the place where their readers actually live.

Wake up, Press Herald, this state needs you.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Has Eastern Europe's crisis peaked?

My old stomping ground in (what we children of the Cold War called) Eastern Europe has been hard hit by the Great Recession. So has the region's crisis peaked? That's the topic of my first piece from my recent trip to the region, which posted at Global Post today.

The story is for the Post's Passport section, which means they'd like you to subscribe, but it's well worth the bother. Remember all those newspapers that cut their foreign bureaus? A lot of their veteran writers file copy for Global Post these days.

More from Europe coming up....

Monday, February 8, 2010

Best of Portland 2010 Nominee

Just when you thought it was safe, the Department of Vulgar Self-Promotion is back, this time on the occasion of the Portland Phoenix's annual Best of Portland 2010 reader survey. I'm among the nominees for Best Author again this year, and even in the unfamiliar position of incumbent.

Truth be told, I'm putting my money on Phillip Hoose this time around. I mean, c'mon, the guy just won the National Book Award and the Newberry Honor. I haven't read his books, but I'm guessing he's gotta be pretty good. The other nominees are comic book artist Ben Bishop and novelists Ron Currie Jr. and Jessica Anthony.

While your voting for one of us (or writing in Stephen King's name), be sure to take the time to weigh in on other eclectic categories, like best politician, radio voice, dive bar and, my personal favorite, failed business.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Press-Herald: Journalism or Public Relations?

Lots of people in Maine have had questions about the direction of the Libra Foundation, the charitable institution created by the late Elizabeth Noyce, especially after they pulled the plug on the Portland Public Market and did so in a way that made it extremely difficult for anyone to try to save it. Last month they announced they were eliminating a popular grant program for poor kids to attend summer camp. Owen Wells, Libra's head, said they had other priorities.

So I was pleased to see the Portland Press Herald -- Maine's former newspaper of record -- has a front page story in today's paper. Until I read it, that is.

Check it out: here's an extensive Sunday news feature that makes absolutely no effort to explore (or even acknowledge) criticism of Libra's direction of late. It's a puff piece that could have been churned out by the foundation's own public relations staff, right down to its headline: "New age dawning for Libra generosity." (Mr. Wells, whose salary and benefit contributions come to well over $300,000 a year, is stepping down in 2011.)

Libra's priorities of late (and their conduct in the Public Market affair) might well make sense once properly explored and explained, but this article makes absolutely no attempt to do so, just taking it on faith that everything Mr. Wells has done in his tenure has been just dandy. (Why is he stepping down again?)

I want to see the Press Herald succeed, because this half of Maine desperately needs a competent and well staffed news gathering organization, but this sort of sycophantic reporting is just driving the daily further into irrelevancy. Even the pseudonymous blogger T. Cushing Munjoy -- a wide-eyed cheerleader for Richard Connor before he took over the paper last year -- has been repeating the essential question: "Is this really the best you can do?"

If so, maybe Connor should just close up shop.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Science expands on Portland waterfront, with taxpayer help

Here in Maine's largest city, the waterfront's been having a tough go of it. For nearly two decades now, the fishing industry has been reeling for lack of sufficient fish in the sea, the container port is hostage to the fate of a single paper mill, and fuel prices have just scuttled the high speed ferry service.

But one entity, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, has been thriving. They've just absorbed the distressed Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System and scored the funding needed to secure (by repairing) the pier behind their building from the U.S. Coast Guard. How do they do it? With federal-level political savvy, lots of public money, and an eye for synergetic opportunity.

As you can read in my column in the new Working Waterfront, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does show just what it takes to get the really big thunderclouds to rain these days.

[Update 2/27/10: Bad link fixed.]

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A package for J.D. Salinger, and other tales

A few items worth reading this week:

J.D Salinger, who'd been hiding out for decades in a hilltop redoubt in Cornish, New Hampshire, died last week His desire for privacy was so complete that many residents of the tiny town didn't know he was there and, if they did, kept mum about it in that laudable Northern New England way. Turns out the Forecaster's very own Steve Mistler is from Cornish, and has this entertaining account of his chance discovery of his famous neighbor while on the job for FedEx.

Maine may have difficulty winning a replacement for The Cat, a high-speed catamaran that recently gave up the runs to Nova Scotia from Portland and Bar Harbor. Industry watchers have long said that a standard ferry makes more sense on the run (now that fuel prices are high) and that operators might seek to operate in or closer to Boston, which has a much larger customer base. MaineBiz has picked up on this. Meanwhile, Nova Scotia taxpayers have been surprised to learn that that they're on the hook to The Cat's owners for $3 million for not renewing a subsidy of $6 million to keep the service going. Looks like somebody hired a clever contract lawyer.

Further afield, read what happens when a journalist leaves his notebook on a suburban train in Japan's teeming capital at The Blog of Rob, and what my Bratislava-based colleague Michael J. Jordan, recently returned from Hong Kong, thinks his Chinese journalism students will take back with them from exposure to the less restrictive island, with its Twitter access and all the rest.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Ethics Commission rebuffs group hiding ballot measure money

An update for those interested in who funded the successful ballot measure to repeal Maine's same sex marriage law:

As you'll recall, the National Organization for Marriage gave nearly two thirds of the money behind the effort, but has not only refused to comply with Maine law and reveal its donors, it has sued the state in federal court to try to get our campaign finance laws declared unconstitutional, a tale you can read about in the current Down East. In October, NOM lost a preliminary ruling, clearing the way for the state ethics commission to investigate the group and presumably reveal their donors.

But on Thursday, NOM asked the ethics commission to suspend their investigation for months or years while their case works its way through the federal courts. To increase the heat on the commissioners -- each of whom NOM has sued -- their attorney, James Bopp, Jr., is the very same attorney who argued the recent U.S. Supreme Court case which removed restrictions on corporate spending in elections.

For those who believe that transparency is essential in politics, there's good news: four out of five commissioners voted to deny NOM's request, clearing the way for the investigation. (The holdout, Belfast Republican Francis Marsan, argued the investigation wasn't worth the money if it could later be blocked.) Curiously, one of the two commissioners who in October voted against investigating NOM -- Edward Youngblood (R-Bangor) -- now supports the probe, as does the new independent commissioner, Margaret Matheson of Augusta. For hardcore political wonks, the audio of the entire commission meeting is here, along with the official agenda.

Ironically, the recent Supreme Court ruling may undermine NOM's case against Maine, as it bolsters the argument that political contributions must be transparent. Keith Shortall at Maine Public Broadcasting reported on this last week.